Doing This One Easy Thing Might Make Waking Up Easier, According to Sleep Experts
You've likely been there: It's 6:30 a.m. Your alarm is sounding, yet you've heard it so many times—and hit snooze on autopilot immediately—that it's almost instinctual to do it again today. It's stressful yet habitual. Why do we do this to ourselves? And is there something about this scenario that we can change to stop the snooze streak and actually wake up on time?
It might all boil down to understanding sleep inertia, and how to manage it, says Carleara Weiss, Ph.D., a sleep science advisor at Aeroflow Healthcare's Sleep division.
What Is Sleep Inertia, Exactly?
Sleep inertia is the scientific name given to that groggy feeling many of us feel after lifting our heads from our pillows.
"This grogginess is not only just a feeling; it affects our cognitive and physical performance as well. Studies indicate that our cognitive performance, including thinking ability, decision-making and memory, plus physical performance, are significantly reduced when we experience sleep inertia," Weiss explains. "However, we recover gradually from it through the day as the grogginess fades."
The duration and intensity of sleep inertia vary on situational factors, and its lingering impact may last a few minutes to several hours, adds Sanam Hafeez, Psy.D., a neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University in New York City.
One of the factors about the waking process that can have a direct connection to sleep inertia timespan, according to a January 2020 study in the journal PLOS One: the type of sound you choose as your alarm. Melodic alarms tend to shorten the perceived sleep inertia time, the researchers found. That means a chipper tune or your current favorite song might help you wake up brighter than that incessant beeping noise typical to many alarms.
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How Your Alarm Impacts Your Ability to Wake Up Feeling Well-Rested (or Not)
That said, sound-based alarms of any kind set with the volume all the way up can be very jarring for the body.
"They shock our body and brain into waking up," Hafeez says. "If you're in a deep sleep, your system will be even more shocked, and your body releases adrenaline, and your blood pressure and heart rate will increase. When you wake naturally, you do not begin the day with adrenaline surging through your body."
Translation: You don't start the day on a calm or clear note. Instead, you're immediately placed into a fight-or-flight scenario, which may increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol coursing through the body.
"A few studies indicate that, over the long run, this stress can increase the risk of a heart attack. There is no conclusive data on this hypothesis, but the bottom line is that loud alarms increase the stress level upon awakening," Weiss says.
The Best Alarm Features to Make Waking Up Easier
For those of us who need an alarm to rise on time, but also want to wake up feeling bright and chipper, there is a rest Rx, the doctors agree.
"The best alarm clock should combine two features: sound and light," Weiss says. "The sound should increase gently—a sound of each person's preference [preferably something melodic to reduce sleep inertia]. The light should mimic sunrise to help our internal biological clock gradually adjust to the impending day and regulate our melatonin and cortisol levels accordingly."
Many sunrise alarms rely on light to steadily wake you up over the course of 20 to 30 minutes, just like a sun might rise. The lighting feature, accurately also called a sunrise alarm, is particularly beneficial during the winter months in countries in the northern hemisphere, Weiss explains. Something like this can be found in a product like the Hatch Restore Personalized Sleep Solution (buy it: $129.99, Target).
"Waking up using light can enhance your mood, cause you to feel more alert and lead to better concentration throughout the day. If you use a sound-based alarm or opt to add the one on your light alarm, a gentle, calming tune can help allow for a less stressful, more natural awakening," Hafeez says.
Birds singing tend to be soothing, she adds, but there is no universal best alarm sound. (These 4 tips for better sleep, though, tend to work for most humans!)
"It's important to select a sound that works best for you," says Hafeez.
The Bottom Line
To make the waking phase easier, try to keep your sleep and wake cycles in alignment with the rise and fall of the sun, Hafeez recommends. "The human brain and body naturally respond to environmental cycles. Waking up as the sun rises and going to sleep shortly after sunset helps wakefulness patterns in humans and helps regulate sleep."
Our biological clocks use our wake-up time to set the stage for hormone regulation and multiple physiological functions (such as metabolism and cognition), Weiss adds, so a consistent wake-up time is critical for health. "Plus a peaceful and more natural wake-up routine will benefit overall health. So investing in an alarm clock with lighting and sound features, or an app in your phone that creates that, is a good choice for your wellness journey," she concludes.
ICYMI, Katie Couric swears by this easy-wake alarm clock for better sleep and more energy, and it checks all the boxes to give you a bright start to the day.